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Ehrenfels, Christian Freiherr von (1859–1932)


Christian Freiherr von Ehrenfels, the Austrian psychologist and philosopher, was born in Rodaun near Vienna. He studied at the University of Vienna under Franz Brentano and Alexius Meinong, and took his doctorate at Graz in 1885. He taught at Vienna as a Privatdozent from 1888 to 1896, when he became extraordinary professor at the German University of Prague. He was a full professor at Prague from 1900 until 1929. Besides his professional work, Ehrenfels wrote two essays on Richard Wagner and several plays.

Gestalt Psychology

In psychology, Ehrenfels is best remembered for inaugurating gestalt psychology in his article "Über Gestaltqualitäten" (1890). Starting from Ernst Mach's thesis in his Beiträge zur Analyse der Empfindungen (Jena, 1886), that we can sense (empfinden ) spatial and temporal forms ("wholes," Gestalten ), Ehrenfels argued that sensing is limited to the present but that the apprehension of a complex datum requires recollection and so seems to lack the immediacy of sensing. This is particularly evident in the case of acoustic data, but it also holds for visual data perused successively. The immediate apprehension of a melody or a figure must therefore be otherwise accounted for than by sensing. Discussing acoustic complexes, Ehrenfels showed that what is in fact apprehended differs from the complex or sum of the component elements, since these vary while the gestalt remains unchanged. This is corroborated by the fact that acoustic forms (melodies) are more easily remembered than are tonal intervals or absolute pitch. Similarly, figures do not depend for their apprehension on absolute location. This implies that gestalt qualities are positive representational contents bound up with the occurrence in consciousness of complexes consisting of separable elements. In Meinong's language (adopted by Ehrenfels in a later paper), they are "founded contents" (fundierte Inhalte ).

Ehrenfels's notion of gestalt was essentially developed from a differential analysis of data, complex, and unity, unity being regarded as a quality. The phenomenological account of a gestalt in terms of contrast, background, and poignancyfeatures essential to subsequent gestalt psychologywas secondary in Ehrenfels's analysis, although he did mention such features.

Ehrenfels extended the notion of gestalt to numbers and to the field of logic. He viewed the contradiction in such concepts as that of a round square as a temporal gestalt quality of the psychic process of attempting to form a representation of the concept, an attempt that proves unfeasible. Ehrenfels also used the notion of gestalt in cases, such as phenomena of style and behavior, in which an analysis into component elements is practically impossible. In general, a gestalt is a novel and creative feature with respect to its component elements (in contrast to David Hume, who admitted only the composition of impressions or ideas and imaginative interpolation within the continuum of sensory qualities).

Value Theory

Ehrenfels made important contributions to value theory and ethics. His series of articles, "Werttheorie und Ethik," although inspired by Meinong's lectures, was published before Meinong's ethical works and possessed at least partial originality. Ehrenfels's subsequent System der Werttheorie (18971898) discussed points of difference with Meinong's first publications on value theory. Ehrenfels defined value as "the relation, erroneously objectified by language, of a thing to a desire directed towards it" ("Werttheorie und Ethik," in Vierteljahrsschrift für wissenschaftliche Philosophie, Vol. 17, p. 89) or to a disposition of desire or feeling (ibid., pp. 209210). "The value of a thing is its desirability" (System der Werttheorie, Vol. I, p. 53). Ehrenfels took value not simply as instrumental to the promotion of one's happiness but insisted that instrumental value (Wirkungswert ) is valuable only relative to intrinsic value (Eigenwert ). We desire the existence or nonexistence of something, and do not necessarily strive for its possession as a means to our happiness. The valuable object is not bound up with utility (Nutzen ) but possesses a more general fittingness (Frommen ) for us. Ehrenfels adapted the economic theory of marginal utility to explain the strength of any desires possessing a fittingness for us (Grenzfrommen ). He thus introduced a quantitative element of valuation: Values and valuation are conditioned by the prior existence of other value objects.

In view of their dependence on emotional dispositions, values have a certain relativity, but there exists wide agreement among human beings as to the value of pleasure and pain and of certain other psychic phenomena, both in ourselves and in others. We value those valuational dispositions of others that are directed toward objects valued by us. In fact, Ehrenfels restricted intrinsic values to psychic realities.

The relativity of values is also apparent in changes in valuation brought about by various causes. Ehrenfels also distinguished trends of valuation, for which he offered a theoretical scheme. Means may turn into ends, as when the satisfaction of feelings of hunger replaces nourishment as the end of eating. By contrast, superior values may feature as ends, as when in the interest of nourishment we suppress our feelings of hunger in the presence of poisonous food. A third factor in trends of value is survival, which is best assured if the object serving it coincides with it. Ends transcending mere survival are exemplified in cultural progress, in which values become nonindividualistic. Superior nonindividualistic values are transmitted through example and suggestion, and cause further value promotion in a value milieu. Ehrenfels found reason to believe that with the increasing integration of human knowledge an upward trend toward superior values could be expected.

Social Ethics

Ehrenfels's theory of value formed the basis for his ethics, which he subdivided into social and individual ethics. Social ethics is concerned with ethical valuation, that is, valuation of psychic (or supposedly psychic) objects that are causally related to certain actions. These objects are intrinsic values, and we demand that a plurality of individuals coincide in their valuation of them. The ultimate object of ethical valuation is not action, or its means or ends, but the desiderative and emotional disposition behind it. It is then called moral (or immoral) disposition, and its valuation moral (or immoral) valuation. (Accordingly, morality is distinguished from law and custom, which do not consider disposition.) Moral dispositions are the emotional dispositions of taking pleasure in others as intrinsic values, that is, as individuals themselves possessing a disposition toward actions serving intrinsic values, particularly the dispositions of love of one's neighbor, of humanity, of God. Such pleasure in others psychologically depends on an awareness of them in thought or in more or less vivid representation. There is a perspective of comparative closeness or distance in valuation. Among other moral dispositions are justice, constancy, and honesty, and their negative counterparts.

Individual Ethics

Individual ethics is concerned with man's response, through "mystical" or "tragic elevation," to his fate as a finite body. The craving for such elevation is the source of the valuations (ethical sanction, conscience) of whatever goes to promote it. These private valuations do not strictly encompass the socioethical ones, but do as a matter of fact coincide with them. Ehrenfels's individual ethics thus was a separate strain centering on an aesthetic desire for psychic harmony. To reach such a state, belief in God or metaphysical convictions are helpful though not indispensable.

Sexual and Racial Views

Ehrenfels's tendency to emphasize biological factors led him in later writings ("Sexuales Ober- und Unterbewusstsein," 19031904; Sexualethik, 1907; "Sexualmoral der Zukunft, 1930; cf. the earlier statement in "Werttheorie und Ethik," Vierteljahrsschrift für wissenschaftliche Philosophie, Vol. 17, p. 354) to question moral restraint on sexuality and to advocate greater frankness, honesty, and delicacy in marital relations. He won Sigmund Freud's praise for his pioneering work in this field. His biological tendency also led him to recommend selective breeding practices for man (cf. "Die sexuale Reform," 19031904) and to embrace ideas bordering on race prejudice ("Leitziele zur Rassenbewertung," 1911).


In his Kosmogonie (1916) Ehrenfels contributed to metaphysics a theory of the origin of the world. Rejecting a monism that admits only the cumulative effects of accidental events, he regarded the origin of the world as the result of the interaction of two principles, a principle of chaotic disorder and a principle of psychoid unity of gestalt that, with infinite improbability but with infinite time to allow for its incipience, has been solicited by the opposing principle. Once the principle of unity has been engaged, the resulting gestalt survives because it is infinitely improbable that chaos is capable of continuous destructive action of its own even in infinite time. The gestalt principle, in turn, is credited with creativity, making for further development. Ehrenfels's cosmogony can be taken as a speculative abstraction intended to put the theory of evolution on a new footing in that it tries to give a plausible account of emerging nonrandomness in the universe.

See also Brentano, Franz; Ethics, History of; Freud, Sigmund; Gestalt Theory; Mach, Ernst; Meinong, Alexius; Metaphysics, History of; Racism; Value and Valuation.


works by ehrenfels

"Über Gestaltqualitäten." Vierteljahrsschrift für wissenschaftliche Philosophie 14 (1890): 249292.

"Werttheorie und Ethik." Vierteljahrsschrift für wissenschaftliche Philosophie 17 (1893): 26110, 200266, 321363, 413425; 18 (1894): 2297. Five consecutive articles.

System der Werttheorie. 2 vols. Leipzig: O.R. Weisland, 18971898.

"Sexuales Ober- und Unterbewusstsein." Politisch-anthropologische Revue 2 (19031904): 456476.

"Die sexuale Reform." Politisch-anthropologische Revue 2 (19031904): 970994.

Sexualethik. Wiesbaden, 1907.

"Leitziele zur Rassenbewertung." Archiv für Rassen- und Gesellschaftsbiologie 8 (1911): 5971.

Kosmogonie. Jena, Germany, 1916.

"Sexualmoral der Zukunft." Archiv für Rassen- und Gesellschaftsbiologie 22 (1930): 292304.

Philosophische Schriften. Munich: Philosophia Verlag, 1982.

works on ehrenfels

Eaton, Howard O. The Austrian Philosophy of Values. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1930.

Meister, Richard. "Ehrenfels." In Neue deutsche Biographie, Vol. IV, pp. 352353. Berlin, 1959.

Orestano, Francesco. I valori umani (Vols. XII and XIII of his Opere complete ), 2 vols. Vol. I, pp. 69102, 123126; Vol. II, pp. 46101. Milan, 1942.

Smith, Barry, C. F. Ehrenfels, et al, eds. Foundations of Gestalt Theory. Munich: Philosophia Verlag, 1988.

Varet, Gilbert. Manuel de bibliographie philosophique. Vol. II, p. 877, note. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1956.

Klaus Hartmann (1967)

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